The Brilliant Career of John Cazale

DOG DAY AFTERNOON, John Cazale, Al Pacino, 1975

John Cazale made only five movies in his brief, brilliant career, but man, what five movies: The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, The Conversation, Dog Day Afternoon, The Deer Hunter. Five movies. Five best picture nominations. Three best picture wins. Cazale’s films racked up a total of 40 Oscar nods, with 14 for his fellow actors. Yet Cazale himself was never nominated for an Academy Award. Now that Leonardo DiCaprio has won his overdue Oscar, perhaps it’s time for the Academy to correct another egregious oversight and award an honorary posthumous Oscar to the actor whose work defined 1970s cinema.

The Conversation, Francis Ford Coppola’s dark descent into obsession and paranoia, opened on today’s date in 1974. Coppola, who had directed Cazale two years earlier in The Godfather, wrote the role of surveillance expert Gene Hackman’s quiet assistant, Stan, for him. Filmed quickly in San Francisco before Coppola started work on The Godfather Part II, The Conversation opened four months before the resignation of President Nixon. Hackman praised Cazale’s work on the film, calling his costar “highly concentrated” and “extremely intense.” Equally impressed, Coppola expanded Cazale’s role of Fredo Corleone for the Godfather sequel. The middle son in the Corleone family, Fredo is a weak man; as critic Rosemary Van Deuren has written, “Cazale’s strength was playing weak men, and portraying them with a complexity that was both intoxicating and tragic.” In one of the most memorable scenes in The Godfather Part II, years of repressed bitterness and resentment pour from Fredo as he confronts his brother Michael (played by Al Pacino):

“I’m your older brother, Mike, and I was stepped over!”
“That’s the way Pop wanted it.”
“It ain’t the way I wanted it! I can handle things! I’m smart! Not like everybody says. Like dumb. I’m smart, and I want respect!”

Pacino later said he learned more about acting from Cazale than from anyone else.

The middle son of three children, Cazale was born in Revere, Massachusetts, in 1935. His mother was a homemaker, and his father sold coal wholesale. Cazale studied acting at Oberlin College and Boston University before moving to New York City to pursue a stage career. He supported himself through odd jobs, including working with the as-yet-undiscovered Pacino as a messenger for Standard Oil. In 1968 Cazale and Pacino appeared together in an off-Broadway production of The Indian Wants the Bronx, a one-act play by Israel Horovitz. Cazale went on to appear in 10 of his plays, and Horovitz considered himself, along with Shakespeare and Brecht, one of “the lucky writers played by Cazale, improved by Cazale, touched by Cazale.”

Fred Roos, casting director for The Godfather, saw Cazale while checking out his friend Richard Dreyfus in a 1971 off-Broadway revival of Horovitz’s Line. Roos knew he had found his Fredo. For director Coppola, Cazale “had all the qualities I had hoped for in Fredo, and there was no hesitation to cast him.” Billed 14th—after even Abe Vigoda—in the film’s credits, Cazale still impressed Godfather star Marlon Brando. After completing the scene in which Don Corleone is shot while Fredo fumbles with a gun, Brando got back into the gutter and laid in the street so Cazale could continue to work opposite him during the takes for his close-ups.

THE GODFATHER, from left: Marlon Brando, John Cazale, 1972 godfather1-fsc34(godfather1-fsc34)I’m glad Pacino convinced director Sidney Lumet to cast Cazale as Sal, Pacino’s partner in crime, in 1975’s Dog Day Afternoon. It’s my personal favorite of Cazale’s performances. Lumet later said, “One of the things I love about casting John Cazale is that he just had this tremendous sadness about him.” Cazale soon confided in his friend Pacino that he had “met the greatest actress in the history of the world.” His hyperbole turned out to be true, as Cazale spent the rest of his life in love with Meryl Streep. The two met in 1976 while performing Measure for Measure at Joseph Papp’s Shakespeare in the Park festival. Streep summed up the duality in Cazale’s art when she observed, “Even in the most comic characters he played, there was always something tragic. And even in the most tragic characters he played, there was always something very funny.’’

The bridesmaid Linda, played by Meryl Streep in a scene of The Deer Hunter by Michael Cimino, glances at John Cazale, guest to a Russian Wedding into an American Orthodox church together with Chuck Aspegren and Robert De Niro. Cleveland (USA), 1978. - Everett Collection/Mondadori Portfolio (1763948)

At 28, Streep was cast with her lover in The Deer Hunter. Shortly before filming began, however, Cazale was diagnosed with lung cancer. Director Michael Cimino agreed to film all of Cazale’s scenes first, and when the studio threatened to fire the ailing actor, Streep threatened to walk off the movie, and star Robert De Niro paid Cazale’s insurance bond. Pacino said of Streep’s devotion to Cazale, “To see her in that act of love for this man was overwhelming.” Cazale died on March 12, 1978, nine months before The Deer Hunter was released. He was 42.

Not many quotes from Cazale are readily found, but this one reveals a man looking to lose himself in acting: “I sometimes wonder if the inability to find oneself makes one seek oneself in other people, in characters.” In 2009 director Richard Shepard produced the amazing documentary I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale, which finally gives the actor the recognition he deserves. Such performers as Steve Buscemi, Sam Rockwell and Philip Seymour Hoffman have all cited Cazale as a major inspiration, and Shepard perfectly sums up the legend of John Cazale when he says, “He made these five perfect movies that really crystallized the best in American filmmaking.… He is the ultimate character actor.”

Photos: Everett Collection